Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting the Band Back Together (or, Thoughts on Film: The Avengers)

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. --Ecclesiastes 3:1

Turn! Turn! Turn! --Pete Seeger/The Byrds
Today, I took advantage of a day off to go see Marvel's The Avengers. (Also, I mowed my lawn, swam a few laps, dumped some trash at the recycling center, and got some groceries, but the significant thing is the movie.) I thought that it was excellent, with exciting action sequences, great visual effects, some of the snappy dialogue you'd expect from writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity), and fine chemistry between the large cast that includes Robert Downey, Jr, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson. Particularly noteworthy is a fine performance by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk.

The film is an adaptation of the Marvel Comics series of the same name, which combines several of the heroes of the Marvel universe (Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, to name the most popular) into one elite evil-fighting team. The film is the culmination of a major project by Marvel to produce an epic series of the Avenger characters, with Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) having had their own films released in the past year and Iron Man (Downey) and the Hulk already clocking in with two films each. (The Hulk, however, has had a different director and actor for each of his three film appearances.) All the other main characters include the actors from the individual films, with Nick Fury (Jackson) and Black Widow (Johansson) returning after making supporting appearances in other films as well. The group reluctantly joins together to fight Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's (adopted) brother, who enters our dimension to open a portal for an invading alien army which he hopes will allow him to establish himself as Earth's ruler. (Sadly, the plot does not allow for Daniel Craig's James Bond or Chuck Norris to be involved.)

That the film was even made is quite an achievement, as getting major stars to sign on for multiple projects for several years can be tricky to pull off, and finding a director who can bring all that talent together and keep the production from turning into a giant money-sucking disaster is no mean feat. Clearly Whedon was the right choice for the project. After seeing the movie, I found myself thinking about all the other projects that involved assembling established "greats" into a single endeavor. Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables was such a project, making a film that contained many of the great action stars of the 80's and 90's (Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture, and Steve Austin, with short appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzeneger). The upcoming sequel adds Jean-Claude Van Damme and the aforementioned Chuck Norris to the mix. Action fans anticipated this combination with the same fervor that comics fans anticipated The Avengers. (NOTE: Many fans of these two films are, in fact, the same people.)

The title of this blog comes from The Blues Brothers, in which Jake and Elwood Blues decide they must "get the band back together" in order to raise funds to save their childhood Catholic orphanage, which they claim is a "mission from God." Though John Belushi (Jake) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) were not professional musicians, the Blues Brothers Band contained some of the top guys in the business, such as Tom "Bones" Malone, Alan Rubin, Matt Murpy, Lou Marini, and the legendary Steve Cropper and the recently-departed Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T and the MG's. The sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 was not a great film, but they took the music up to eleven with a music number that included Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, Eric Clapton, Travis Tritt, Steve Winwood, Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, and Clarence Clemmons to name a few.

There are non-fiction gatherings as well, such as The Three Tenors, the 1992 Dream Team for the Barcelona Olympics, benefit performances like USA For Africa and The Concert for Bangladesh, and "super groups" of established talent like Cream, Velvet Revolver, and Chickenfoot. Fans of a given thing, be it comics, action films, sports, or music, love to see the very best, and often dream "what if these guys all got together?" When it happens, it often makes something special, more than the sum of its already considerably amazing parts.

I have found that after moving several times, I wish that I could "get the band back together," so to speak, trying to connect with old friends and colleagues, something that gets more difficult as people move to other cities, begin to raise families, get busy with work, or just move on to other things. When I was in Atlanta, I had (believe it or not!) numerous social circles: my church singles group, my Events and Adventures singles group, my friends from ballroom dancing, friends who were fans/members of The Lost Boys, and my coworkers from The US Army Ground Forces's amazing now to think I was ever bored when I lived there. While I would love to get all those people together in one place to hang out for a while, the reality is that "life happens" and most of the time getting lunch with a person or two or meeting a few folks for a dance or a concert is the best that can be hoped for. At least we have modern conveniences such as Facebook which allow us to stay in touch with distant friends. It isn't the same as being with people, but it's much easier to stay in contact now than it was just a few years ago.

Plus, remember what the Righteous Brothers said about Rock and Roll Heaven....

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Days of King Henry

This past weekend I made a journey I haven't made since before I moved to New York: the Georgia Renaissance Festival in Fairburn, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. I first found out about the "RenFest" when I was dragged there by some friends/co-workers at Ft. Benning who thought it would help get me out of a post-breakup funk that I was in. It did.

The RenFest isn't quite like stepping back in time, but it is a bit like stepping into the Twilight Zone. The festival is a bizarre mixture of the past and present, with some elements of fantasy thrown in for good measure. Yes, King Henry VIII and his court can be seen strolling the streets and overlooking the daily jousting tournament, there are also pirates, acrobats, comedians, blacksmiths, musicians, and vendors. Food options range from the ever-popular turkey leg to fried pickles. Wares for sale range from tapestries to kilts to armor to "elf ears" to didgeridoos. All this makes for an eclectic day at the park.

For me, it was a day to visit with friends, as I met some who were also visiting that day as well as others who are performers in the park. There is some nostalgia and familiarity as many elements are unchanged from previous years, from the souvenirs to the acts. It was great to see one of my favorite local bands, The Lost Boys, make a return to Renfest after being absent the past few years. Their blend of rock and roll with Shakespeare is one of the most creative musical acts I've come across and they always manage to put on a fun show. (Their oeuvre, which they claim is French for...oeuvre...consists of originals like the opening number "Art Thou Ready?" to parodies like "Desdemona," which sets lyrics about Othello's love interest to the tune of the Knack's "My Sharona.") I also enjoyed a performance by Half-Pint, made up of two of the three members of another favorite band, Three Quarter Ale. (The other member has other engagements on weekend afternoons.) The jousting is also a lot of fun to watch, even though the script is still mostly the same. Considering that it involves guys charging at each other on real horses, the staged nature does not diminish the excitement. There are plenty of other entertainments, from the family-friendly tongue-in-cheek Catholic humor of "Hey Nunny Nunny" to the very NON-family-friendly Ded Bob Show. (Seriously, don't take little kids to that one.)

There's a little time left this year, so if you're in the Atlanta area on the weekend check out the Renaissance Festival. As my friend/fellow musician Andy Womack has observed in song, it isn't necessarily historically accurate, but it is a lot of fun.(Also, I hope he doesn't mind me borrowing a song title for the name of this post...)